Catching Fire: What to Expect From the Amazon Phone

Will it be a 3D gimmick, a shopping ninja, the family jewel, or just another smartphone? We'll find out soon enough.

The market for Android phones is large and crowded, but Wednesday looks like it will finally be the day we welcome Amazon to the jungle. Jeff Bezos and Co. are having a big event (and TechHive is invited), where it's expected we'll get to see Amazon's long-anticipated smartphone. The teaser video seems to confirm the persistent rumor that the Amazon phone will have a 3D screen, but is that enough to set it apart from the galaxy of competitors?

After I accepted Amazon's invitation to Wednesday's event, a children's book showed up in the mail--Mr. Pine's Purple House, by Leonard Kessler, currently the No. 2,837th most popular book on Amazon. It's a story about Mr. Pine who lives on Vine Street, where all the houses look the same. Everything Mr. Pine does to his house to make it stand out is promptly copied by his neighbors (in the spirit of flattery, of course), until--spoiler alert--he finally paints his house purple, and then all the neighbors decide to paint their houses too, but with whatever color they like best.

Now, a purple phone isn't new--heck, I could find you a purple Galaxy S3 or Lumia 620 by 3 o'clock this afternoon--so what special color will Mr. Bezos paint his house?

Personal shopper

I like the idea that it's all about shopping. Amazon's Kindles and Kindle Fire tablets make buying Amazon content like e-books, movies, TV shows, and even magazines and newspapers a seamless, dare I say delightful experience. But few self-respecting consumers actually take an e-reader or tablet to the mall. Your smartphone is your sidekick on every shopping trip, and Amazon must have tons of data about where people are using its smartphone apps to comparison shop in brick-and-mortar stores. An Amazon phone could suggest better deals almost before you think to ask.

And we know that Amazon will do anything to make shopping at Amazon more seamless. Some customers are even getting barcode scanners, called Amazon Dash. Yes, it's an actual handheld laser scanner, and you walk around your house shooting lasers at things that you want more of. Or if that's too much work, you can speak into the built-in microphone, just mutter the name of anything your heart desires, and it shows up in your Amazon cart, right next to whatever you added by hashtag. A couple of clicks to check out, and in two days or one day or zero days, poof, there it is.

Sorry, I digress. What if the Amazon's phone had a laser barcode scanner on it just like the Dash's, with voice recognition to rival Siri's? What if the rumored 3D screen was to better show off preview photos and videos of products--out of the box, assembled, even in use--in the phone's flagship Amazon shopping app? As a person who loves buying things but hates the mall, I'm in.

Shaking up the sale

T-Mobile had another of its Uncarrier announcements planned, also for this Wednesday, and when Amazon announced its event the same day in Seattle, T-Mobile moved its shindig north from Los Angeles to Seattle so the press corps could more easily cover both. (So thoughtful!)

So how related will they be? Both companies like to make bold, splashy moves to shake up their industries and rattle competitors, from Amazon selling its hardware practically at cost to T-Mobile paying new customers' early termination fees and offering free international data roaming. I don't have a strong feeling that these two events were designed to complement each other, but I think that Amazon, being all about shopping, is going to try to surprise us with how people buy its new phone.

I absolutely love Roberto Baldwin's theory that Amazon would subsidize its phone's data plan, giving everyone some free data and then upselling them later, or letting you "earn" more data by being the best little Amazon shopper you can be. That's a great idea, especially since Amazon wants to encourage data-hungry activities like streaming tons of media bought from you-know-where.

Amazon also loves to give its customers choice--the company doesn't care if you buy shoes from Zappos or Amazon proper, after all. So perhaps Amazon will sell its phone unlocked, to use with the carrier of your choice, but at a price that's dangerously close to (or cheaper than) a carrier-subsidized phone. Maybe Amazon partners with Ting (for whom Amazon recently started processing payments) to offer several tiers of data, texts, and talk plans for a customizable, contract-free fit.

Family talk

Amazon's Kindle FreeTime Unlimited is a cool all-you-can-eat package for kids with a curated collection of age-appropriate apps, games, books, and media. Parents get very granular controls over how much kids can access and at what times of day, options that put iOS and stock Android's parental controls to shame. That along with the easy navigation and handy Mayday feature for getting live help make the Kindle Fire HDX probably the best tablet on the market to share with a family.

And that's a smart move--get 'em locked into the ecosystem while they're young, building a movie collection and a music library and a roster of favorite games and apps. I was always surprised there was no clear Android-powered answer to Apple's iPod touch, a phone-like form factor without phone service, just Wi-Fi communication and a way to buy and consume apps, movies, music, TV, and games.

Amazon could make its phone the iPod touch of the Android world, selling bundles for families that can work as phones or just as Wi-Fi handhelds a la the iPod touch. Parents can lock down which apps and contacts are allowed, like they can with phones like the Kurio, and then dole out add-ons like text messages, data, or even voice minutes as the child matures (or just as a bribe for good behavior).

Amazon's phone will be unveiled this Wednesday in Seattle, and I'll be live-tweeting the announcement and writing it up here. (And sure, T-Mobile's Wednesday event too, what the heck.) Join us to see how Amazon will decide to paint its house: purple, in 3D, with lasers, or even kid-friendly. I can't wait to see.

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